26 April 2018

April 17/30, 2018: The 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Emperor Alexander II, the Tsar-Liberator

Alexander II Nikolaevich, Emperor of Russia, the Tsar-Liberator, was born in Moscow on April 17, 1818 (old style), on the feast day of the translation of the holy relics of St. Alexander Svirsky.

Alexander II was the eldest son of Emperor Nicholas I and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (née Princess of Prussia). After the death in 1825 of his uncle, Emperor Alexander I, and the tragic events of December that same year (the “Decembrist Uprising”), Alexander’s father ascended the throne. In accordance with the Law of Succession, the future Tsar-Liberator assumed the titles of Tsesarevich and Heir to the Throne. From 1834 on, he attended the meetings of the Governing Senate, and from 1835 on, he began also attending sessions of the Holy Synod. From 1837 to 1838, the Tsesarevich went on an extensive tour of Russia and Europe.

Alexander II inherited the throne on February 18/March 3, 1855, toward the end of the Crimean War, but he managed to minimize Russia’s losses as a result of its defeat. He was crowned Emperor in the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin on August 26/September 8, 1856, and ushered in the era of the Great Reforms, which brought an end to the feudal structures in the Empire, and resolved many other social and economic inequities.

The first in the series of fundamental reforms introduced by Emperor Alexander II was the abolition of serfdom (February 19/March 4, 1861).

With the publication of the Judicial Statutes (1864), the Emperor separated the judiciary from the executive, legislative, and administrative branches of government, creating for the first time a truly independent judiciary. Courtrooms thus became both open to the public and structured on an adversarial procedure.

The Emperor also introduced wholesale reforms of the police, taxation, universities and higher education generally, and in the entire system of secular and religious primary education in the country. By 1864, Alexander II had also introduced the Zemstvos, a new nationwide system of local councils made up of representatives of all classes and charged with overseeing economic and social issues in the regions.

In 1874, Alexander II introduced universal military service of six years for young men of all classes over the age of 21 years. He also adopted the proposals by Dmitrii Milyutin, his Minister of War, for major reorganizational and administrative reforms of Russia’s land and sea forces.

Other important reforms included the abolition of corporal punishment, the founding the State Bank, the abolition or reduction of a number of taxes, and improving the condition under which Old Believers lived in the Empire. Alexander II also founded three new universities: in Novorossiisk, Warsaw, and Tomsk.

Emperor Alexander II also enjoyed numerous successes on the battlefield. The uprising that broke out in Poland in 1863 despite the introductions of recent reforms and the restoration of the Council of State, was quickly put down by Count Feodor Berg and Mikhail Muraviev. In 1864, the capture of Imam Shamil brought a successful end to the Caucasian War. By the Aigun and Beijing Treaties with the Chinese Empire, Russia gained in 1858-1860 the Amur and Ussuri regions. In 1867-1873, the Empire expanded with the conquest of Turkestan and the Ferghana Valley, and the Bukhara Emirate and Khiva Khanate entered the Empire as protectorates. In 1867, Russia’s overseas possessions in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands were sold to the United States of America, with which Russia had enjoyed very good relations, including during the years of the American Civil War. In 1877, the Emperor, moved by his enormous sympathy for the oppressed Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The defeat of the Ottomans in the war secured the independence of Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro. Southern Bessarabia, lost by Russia in 1856 in the Crimean War, was returned, and the Russian Empire gained Ardahan, Batum, and Kars.

There were no assassination attempts during the first decade of Emperor Alexander II’s reign, but things quickly changed. The first attempt on his life took place on April 4, 1866, when a minor nobleman from Kostroma, Dmitrii Karakozov, shot at the Emperor in the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg. The Emperor was saved by the quick action of the peasant Ossip Komissarov, who was able to deflect the arm of the would-be assassin as he fired. In 1867, during the Emperor’s visit to the World Fair in Paris, Antoni Berezowski shot at Alexander II but again thankfully missed his target. On April 2, 1879, Alexander Soloviev emptied his revolver attempting to murder Alexander II but missed with every shot. The underground terrorist organization “People’s Will” planned with great determination and ingenuity the murder of the Tsar-Liberator. The failures of previous attempts prompted them to change their tactics—they twice planted bombs on train tracks hoping to blow up the royal train, once in Alexandrovskoe and another time near Moscow, and they also succeeded in planting a bomb in the Winter Palace itself. But the Lord each time preserved alive His Holy Anointed Tsar until the predetermined hour.

Emperor Alexander II’s first marriage was to Empress Maria Alexandrovna (née Princess Maximiliane Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt). His second marriage was morganatic—with Princess Ekaterina Mikhailovna Dolgorukova, who was granted the title of Princess Yurievskaya. They married in July 1880, not long before his death.

On March 1, 1881, the Tsar-Liberator was murdered villainously on the banks of the Catherine Canal in St. Petersburg. A bomb was thrown at his carriage as he passed by. The explosion did not injure him, but a boy nearby and a Cossack in his entourage were badly injured. Ignoring all concerns for his safety, the Emperor got out of his carriage to offer assistance to the wounded, and just then a second bomb was thrown by the terrorist Ignaty Grinevitsky, landing at the feet of the Emperor. Mortally wounded and in excruciating pain, the Emperor until his last breath maintained his dignity and composure and worried not for himself but only about the condition of those who had been wounded in the attack.

Alexander II died in the Winter Palace and was buried in the Family Mausoleum of the Romanoff Dynasty in the Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. On the very spot where the assassination took place there was soon erected one of the city’s most magnificent churches—the Church of the Saviour on the Blood.

Alexander II’s eldest son, Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, died in Nice on April 11, 1865, of tuberculosis and so the throne was inherited by his second son, Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich—Alexander III.

Two of Alexander II’s other sons died, like their father, at the hands of revolutionaries: Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich was killed by a bomb thrown by the terrorist Ivan Kalyayev in the Moscow Kremlin on February 4/17, 1905; and Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich was shot by the Bolsheviks on January 11/24 (some sources report the murder took place instead on January 17/30), 1919, in the Ss. Peter and Paul Fortress, together with Grand Dukes Dmitrii Konstaninovich, Nicholas Mikhailovich, and George Mikhailovich.

After the assassination in 1918 of both grandsons and of the great-grandson of Alexander II—the Holy Royal Passion-Bearer Emperor Nicholas II, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, and Tsesarevich Aleksei Nikolaevich—the Headship of the Imperial House of Romanoff passed to the eldest son of the Tsar-Liberator’s third son, Grand Duke Wladimir Alexandrovich—specifically, to Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, who assumed in 1924 the title of Emperor-in-Exile.

The branch of the Vladimirovichi represented by Emperor-in-Exile Kirill Vladimirovich (1876-1938), Wladimir Kirillovich (1917-1992), Maria Vladimirovna (born 1953), and George Mikhailovich (born 1981) constitutes the senior dynastic line of the House of Romanoff.

The descendants of Alexander II through his daughter Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, Duchess of Edinburgh and Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; through his granddaughter Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna, Princess Nicholas of Greece and Denmark; from his great-granddaughters Grand Duchess Maria Kirillovna, Princess of Leiningen, and Grand Duchess Kira Kirillovna, Princess of Germany and Prussia, belong today to many European royal houses.

Alexander II also has morganatic descendants in the male line: the Serene Princes and Princesses Romanovsky-Ilyinsky (descendants of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich: including the son of Grand Duke Dmitrii Pavlovich, who received his title and new surname from Emperor-in-Exile Kirill) and the last member of the line of Princes Yurievsky, who received their title and surname from Alexander II himself—Prince Hans-Georg Yurievsky.

The Head of the Imperial House of Russia, H.I.H. the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, and H.I.H. the Heir, Tsesarevich, and Grand Duke George of Russia, ask all their countrymen to raise their hearts in prayer to God for the repose of their royal ancestor and, to the extent they are able, to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Tsar-Liberator with good words of philanthropy and charity in his memory.

Grand eternal rest, O Lord, in blessed repose to the martyred and righteous Empror Alexander Nikolaevich, and may his memory be eternal!

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